Class warfare

It was nice to see this morning that The New York Times has begun an inquiry into class in America, even if it was joined with all sorts of risible codicils qualifying class’s very existance, and ultimately endorsing only this tentative definition: “Class is one way societies sort themselves out.”

The article is full of mixed blessings. It repeated the discredited claim by economic ideologist Gary Becker (who also argues that addiction is a rational choice) that the children of the rich and the poor have equal opportunities in life in such a way that its later refutation seems in question. (Part of the bogus “balancing” style of reporting that equates lies with truth because one side of the political spectrum prefers lies.) It presents some compelling data about the degree to which class affects well-being (in terms of health care and education) but then undermines it by soft-selling it in the analysis, emphasizing instead Americans’ “optimism” about social mobility. We get the usual fatalistic bromides from interview subjects about being realistic and about how you can’t fix the system and how it’s “as fair as you can make it” and how in the end one can still work hard and get ahead, off-handedly pinning all the blame for social inequality right on the shoulders of the poor — if they can’t get educated or get health care, they simply haven’t worked hard enough. As usual, those suffering by this ideology of hard work are depicted as the ones espousing it and endorsing it.

We do learn that social mobility is lower in America than in Europe — thanks to winner-take-all economic policies of the oligarchic right, the “American dream” is now more easily fulfilled in Europe than in America. And even though it waffles about class’s existence, it does summarize the reasons why class consciousness is crippled in America: the surfeit of cheap goods, the stubborn materialism that leads people to ignore the invisible but overwhelming factor of social capital in policing class barriers. Class is less a matter of what stuff one has (that is itself an ideological notion of a consumer society; that we are all the same class because we can all own DVD players) than one’s habitus, one’s mode of reacting and responding to the world that communicates where you are in the hierarchy. Sometimes this is mystified as “aesthetic sensibility” or “charisma” or “social connections” or “etiquette.” But whatever it is called, it is the true hallmark of class.

The article also gingerly offers the thesis that Americans’ faith in social mobility is an ideology supported by shows like American Idol and The Apprentice, which attempt to dramatize meritocracy in action, and by rags-to-riches stories derived from Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger. But the article also opines that “fixed class positions … rub people the wrong way,” and then justifies why these people are right to wish class into the cornfield and pretend it no longer has any effect on them. You have to believe in social mobility in order to have any chance at it, it concludes, arguing for a placebo effect version of the classless society.

One can only hope that future installments in this series will explore further the way in which class privilege is hidden in America. At this stage there should be no debate that it exists; the only question is to explore the ways in which it works and they way in which is hidden, to quell the inevitable dissent that would otherwise result.

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